Navy has the talk ... about sex ... and respect
By DIANNA CAHN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 21, 2014
NORFOLK, Va. (MCT) — Mike Domitrz stands on the stage in a black T-shirt, a black blazer and jeans, talking about sex, with the rapt attention of hundreds of sailors in the audience.
He calls two volunteers to the stage and tells them they are on a date. It's going well, he tells the audience. Then, prompted by Domitrz, the woman says to the man, "This is going to sound really awkward, but I was wondering if I can give you a kiss?"
Awkward? Domitrz asks, and the audience of sailors in uniform gives a resounding yes. That's only because most people are never taught to talk about sexual intimacy, he says. Asking permission doesn't kill the moment. And if it does, the moment either never existed, or an immature partner doesn't recognize what respect looks like.
Most humans are innately sexual, he says. "By the way, a woman who is sexually assertive is not a slut. She's a woman. We have to stop calling people names for being human beings."
Domitrz and his interactive, 75-minute performance titled "Can I Kiss You?" came to Norfolk Naval Station on Thursday -- part of the Navy's evolving and expanding effort to counter sexual assault.
Military officials say training has come a long way in the past two years from boring lectures to interactive and engaging presentations.
"PowerPoint and lectures really can only go so far," said Capt. Chuck Marks, the sexual assault prevention and response officer at the Navy's Fleet Forces Command. "If the sailors can interact with it and it is more meaningful and something they will remember longer, perhaps they'll take some of those tools with them when they are on liberty overseas or they are in the barracks, or when they are interacting with peers."
In May, the Pentagon said reports of alleged sexual assaults across the military services had spiked over the previous year, rising from 3,374 in 2012 to 5,061 in 2013.
In the Navy, the numbers climbed from 726 reports in 2012 to 1,057 in 2013. The additional 331 are markedly higher than the increase of 176 between 2011 and 2012.
While fear of retaliation against victims remains a concern, military officials say the increase in reported assaults indicates that service members feel more comfortable coming forward -- not that attacks themselves are up.
Marks said that, since 2011, the Navy has overhauled its effort to prevent rape and sexual assault. In 2012, he said, the Navy revamped its policies on reporting, investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults and put in place better protections for victims.
Last year, the focus was on educating the fleet and raising awareness about how alcohol abuse is a common theme in destructive behavior such as domestic violence, sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.
Teaching sailors to look out for fellow sailors and to intervene when necessary is key, he said, and training methods have come a long way.
But military officials acknowledge that there's a long way to go. Many people still report retaliation and ostracism; sexual assault cases make up a large portion of the crimes prosecuted in Navy courtrooms.
Last week, the University of Michigan released a study that questioned whether the military is adequately evaluating the effectiveness of its sexual assault prevention training.
The study, which was based on evaluations of training programs from 2010, acknowledged that the Pentagon has made significant progress. But it found that methods were inconsistent across the military and that the evaluations were too general to adequately measure effectiveness.
Cmdr. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman, said the study does not reflect the dramatic changes to sexual assault training, particularly in the Navy, since 2010.
"Sailors routinely cite progress being made in how we talk about sexual assault, the sophistication of training methods being used, and the forums in which we conduct education and training," he said.
Kathryn Holland, one of the authors of the Michigan study, said that, regardless of the year examined, the study does demonstrate the importance of transparency in evaluating prevention efforts. The study questioned the Pentagon's methodology for evaluating the effectiveness of its prevention programs.
"We recognize the limitations of the data we have, but the message itself is just as applicable today as it was to what they were doing in 2010 and in 2005," she said.
"The efforts are excellent, and we never doubted whether they were making an effort," she added. "It was more about the transparency of what they were doing, and whether the evaluation was adequately measuring whether (the training) is doing what you really want it to do."
Servello said the Navy is continually improving its training and assessments: "We certainly have been open, and remain open, to outside critique and criticism. We are an organization that wants to learn."
Later this year, the Navy will roll out another interactive program that will focus on bystander intervention to counter destructive behaviors. It will be showcased in smaller groups, with audiences of similar rank, so sessions are more conversational, he said.
Marks said that the effort, coming to the Navy's waterfront units, was adapted from boot camp and initial enlisted schooling.
On the stage Thursday at Norfolk Naval Station, Domitrz told the audience about his own experience 15 years ago, after learning that his older sister had been raped. He said he went from rage -- and wanting the rapist dead -- to the sobering realization that anger would not help prevent other sexual assaults.
From that, he developed his training, demonstrating to military and college audiences all over the country -- 20,000 people last year -- that standing by while a friend plies a girl with drinks so he can take her home is tantamount to allowing rape to happen.
"Do any of us have any right to want the rapist (of a loved one) dead when we did nothing to stop a potential rape last weekend?" he asked them.
"That's how we make an incredible difference." If people intervene, he said, a date rapist "can't get away with it anymore because too many of us won't let it happen."
Sailors in the audience seemed to take the messages to heart. Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Theis, who is stationed aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, said the group he was with had complained about having to sit through the training but came out surprised.
"To be honest, usually Navy training is pretty dry, but this was pretty interesting," he said. "I think the people that came here today are taking away a lot more than expected."
At the end of the session Thursday, Domitrz asked audience members what they were going to do with the information. One member said he would stop assuming he knew what his partner wanted. Another said he would intervene if he saw a person in trouble.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Mario Veccino, who works aboard the inactivated aircraft carrier Enterprise, said he was going to go home and ask his girlfriend whether he could kiss her -- just to see what she said.
"She should be cool with it," he added.
(c) 2014 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by MCT Information Services